The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Wild Captures

A baby orca with two adults, jumping out of a pool during a performance.
Photo by Holger Wulschlaeger from Pexels

For as long as there have been stories and records about it, whale hunting has always been brutal, barbaric, and gory. Capturing orcas and other marine mammals for sale to aquariums and amusement parks is just as violent and brutal. Whale hunters have used explosives, helicopters, and other fear tactics to separate orcas from their pod. Many orcas have been killed accidentally in the process. Even more reprehensible was the cover-up of those deaths. Whale hunters posthumously cut open dead orcas and stuffed them with rocks to sink their bodies. Additionally, these captures in the 1960s and 1970s greatly reduced the populations of orcas, particularly the Southern Resident orcas.

At least 166 orcas have been taken into captivity from the wild since 1961, and 129 of these orcas are now dead.

Wild orcas in the sea
Photo by Nitesh Jain on Unsplash

Whale Capture

“Most cetacean capture methods are extremely traumatizing, involving high-speed boat chases and capture teams violently wrestling animals into submission before hauling them onto a boat in a sling and then dumping them into shallow temporary holding tanks or pens.”

The Vancouver Aquarium

In 1964, the Vancouver Aquarium captured an orca named Moby Doll, a male that they first believed was female. Originally, the aquarium had no intention of capturing an orca. They actually commissioned an artist to kill an orca to use as a body model for a killer whale sculpture. However, after harpooning a young whale and then shooting it several times, the whale did not die. Instead, the orca followed its captors as if on a leash for 16 hours in order to avoid the pain of resistance with the harpoon in his back. The aquarium put Moby Doll on display for scientists and the public to view. He did not eat for 55 days. When he started eating finally, he consumed 200 pounds of fish per day. But he never fully recovered and died after 87 total days of captivity.

“Moby Doll was the first orca ever held in captivity, and his amazing qualities, seen by humans for only those hard last months of his life, started both a new appreciation for orcas and a new industry of catching and displaying the whales for entertainment.”

The Vancouver Aquarium no longer keeps captive whales. “After Moby Doll, [they] got more orcas and kept at least one in captivity until 2001, when its last orca, an Icelandic whale nicknamed ‘Bjossa,’ was shipped away to SeaWorld in San Diego, where she soon died.”

Seattle Marine Aquarium at Pier 56

In 1965, Fishermen accidentally caught Namu the orca in their net in Canadian waters. Namu was the first captive performing killer whale. They contacted the owner of the Seattle Marine Aquarium, Ted Griffin, who bought Namu for $8,000. Griffin put him on display. “Crowds flocked to Pier 56 to watch Griffin ride the whale and to see Namu jump on command,” according to The Seattle Times. Downtown shops sold Namu souvenirs. There are two songs and a film about Namu.

“Within a month, Griffin made history, becoming the first human ever known to ride a killer whale…Visitors and the press were crazy for the story of Griffin and Namu.”

Griffin intended to capture another whale so that Namu would have a mate. Activists and scientists protested. Then two female whales died during Griffin’s effort, which exacerbated the issue. In the midst of that, Griffin received approval to build a new marine park as a new home for Namu. But the project never came to be.

Proposed "marine park" at Seattle Center, 1966, elevations/drawing.
Proposed “marine park” at Seattle Center, 1966. Image from the Seattle Municipal Archives on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Namu’s legacy

The success of the aquarium from having Namu “spark[ed] a period of orca captures in the region, when a generation of southern resident killer whales was taken and shipped to aquariums around the world.”9 Other marine amusement parks sought the financial success of having captive performing orcas. Unfortunately, it became an established practice.

“Namu fever stoked an international craze for killer whales to put on exhibit all over the nation and the world. Captors particularly targeted the young, the cheapest to ship.”10

Sadly, Namu died within one year. He drowned after he became entangled in the netting of his pen. The autopsy revealed a massive bacterial infection caused by the raw sewage polluting the bay,11 and this likely contributed to the whale’s disorientation and drowning.12

Wild orcas swimming off of the coast of Alaska. Snow covered mountains in background.
“Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)” near Kenai Peninsula Borough, Alaska. Photo by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972

In the 1960s and early 1970s, whale captures were largely unregulated and were completely legal. Humans captured hundreds of orcas and thousands of marine mammals during those decades for all types of purposes. Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 (MMPA) in direct response to concerns about the effects of human activity on marine mammals. But at the insistence of the theme park industry, Congress gave an exemption for marine mammals in zoos and aquariums, under the facade of ‘for educational purposes.’

“When drafting the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA), members of the US Congress believed, or were lobbied into  promoting, the long-accepted view that the public display of wildlife (at facilities such as zoos and aquaria) serves a necessary educational and conservation purpose.”

NOAA grants other exceptions under the MMPA. Examples include scientific research, photography, capture, or first-time imports for public display in aquariums, or rescues.

Orca jumping out of the ocean
Photo by Thomas Lipke on Unsplash

Washington State

In 1976, Washington State closed its waters to killer whale captures, a direct reaction to the ridiculous craze for capturing them. “By 1976 some 270 orcas were captured — many multiple times — in the Salish Sea, the transboundary waters between the U.S. and Canada, according to historian Jason Colby at the University of Victoria. At least 12 of those orcas died during capture, and more than 50, mostly Puget Sound’s critically endangered southern residents, were kept for captive display. All are dead by now but one,” referring to Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium. classified as endangered in 2005.

Icelandic and North Atlantic captures

Less than 8 months later, SeaWorld and other marine parks moved their capture operations to Icelandic and North Atlantic waters. “Tilikum was a victim of the wild capture efforts that shifted to Iceland and the North Atlantic after they were run out of the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1970s,” as the Whale and Dolphin Conservation of North America described. Tilikum was the whale who killed his trainer in 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando and may have been responsible for two other human deaths during his captive history. He passed away in 2017. Whale hunters captured Keiko, the star of Free Willy, from the same area. Kiska, whom I wrote about previously, was also captured there.

“Between 1976 and 1989, at least 54 orcas were captured from Icelandic waters and sold to marine parks around the world. [Seventeen] of those whales ended up at SeaWorld parks.” Forty-eight of these orcas have died in captivity.

“All cetacean capture methods are invasive, stressful, and can potentially be lethal.” -Dr. Naomi A. Rose

Four orcas jumping out of the water at Marineland Antibes
“Orca Whales (Orsinus orca), Marineland, France,” by Spencer Wright on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

After 1989

Laws prohibiting wild captures led to the establishment of captive breeding programs at marine amusement parks. Over the last 40 years, this practice has become the new standard for replenishing orca stock. “One of the keys to SeaWorld’s success was its ability to move away from controversial wild orca captures to captive births in its marine parks. The first captive birth that produced a surviving calf took place at SeaWorld Orlando in 1985. Since then, SeaWorld has relied mostly on captive breeding to stock its parks with killer whales, even mastering the art of artificial insemination.”

Thankfully, the practice of captive breeding is now ending in the western world. But in other parts of the world, marine amusement parks are growing in popularity. This means wild captures are now on the rise in those areas. In my next article, I’ll share some of this information with you. Thanks for reading, and please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “A Whale of a Business: Laws, Marine Mammal Legislation,” Frontline Online, PBS, accessed March 3, 2021.

Video, “Choosing between hunting & saving whales,” CNN.com, November 18, 2014.

Footnotes:

The Plight of Orcas in Captivity, Kiska and Kshamenk

Kiska, a lone orca swimming in a tank with people watching through a glass window, at Marineland, Canada, 2011.
Kiska, a lone orca at Marineland, Canada, 2011. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

In my last post, I told you about Hugo and Lolita. In this article, I’m going to tell you about two other orcas, Kiska and Kshamenk, who are suffering in captivity.

Kiska, Marineland Niagara Falls, Ontario

Kiska was caught at age 3 near Iceland in 1978 or 1979 and has lived at Marineland since. She lives in isolation from other orcas and all other marine mammals. She has birthed 5 babies and has experienced the death of all of them! The oldest one lived only to age 6. She exhibits many of the same symptoms of depression as Lolita does: stillness, lethargy, and despondency.1 Kiska is another orca that now lives alone.

Relationships

In 1979, Marineland purchased another female orca named Nootka. Kiska “developed what one former trainer called ‘an incredibly close’ connection with Nootka…and ‘they hated to be separated.’ They swam constantly together and vocalized, even having their own calls. They even supported [each]other through labour.”2 Sadly, Nootka died in 2008 of unknown causes.

In 2006, SeaWorld Orlando separated a 4-year-old male orca from his mother and placed him on a breeding loan to Marineland. Ikaika “Ike” became Kiska’s only companion after Nootka passed away. However, he harassed her and the park often separated them, so they did not end up mating. Finally, in 2011 SeaWorld moved Ikaika to their San Diego park after a long custody battle between Marineland and SeaWorld.3

Kiska swimming in her tank, view from below the surface.
“Kiska was wild-caught off the coast of Iceland in the 1970s, and lives alone in this tank.” Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals (https://weanimalsmedia.org/)

Behavioral Changes

Kiska used to perform at the King Waldorf Stadium at Marineland. Today, she no longer performs but she is on public display and is a main attraction at the park. She’s often bored and chews on the concrete of her tank while also exhibiting other abnormal, repetitive behaviors known as stereotypies. Her teeth are completely worn down from this and she receives dental treatment (with anesthetics).

“People familiar with Kiska report that she used to be a highly vocal whale; they suspect she once called out in an attempt to reach her deceased calves or former tank mates. Now, as if without hope of ever receiving a response, Kiska is silent.” -The Whale Sanctuary Project4

Habitat

The tank that Kiska currently uses is the one on the right in the image below. The pool on the left is for the beluga whales. According to a report by cetacean expert Dr. Ingrid N. Visser, “the beluga tank is currently off-limits to Kiska, although in the past she had access to it. The water temperature in all three tanks is maintained at 55˚F (12.7˚C) and therefore Kiska could be given access to the ‘beluga’ tank, if she was habituated to the presence of belugas. This  would additionally provide her with some form of ‘companion’ animals to alleviate the solitary confinement she is currently subjected to which has been well documented as unacceptable conditions for such a socially orientated animal.” The tank is not deep enough, as it is only approximately 30 feet deep. Last, neither Kiska nor the belugas have shaded areas to protect them from the sun, especially in the summer months.5

Beluga and orca pools at Marineland Niagara Falls.
Beluga and orca pools at Marineland Niagara Falls. Image taken from Google Maps.

Retirement

In 2015, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario passed the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Amendment Act. The act prohibits the possession or breeding of orcas in Ontario but allowed Marineland to keep Kiska. However, the Whale Sanctuary Project would welcome her into their care once their project is complete. Will Marineland give her up?

Kshamenk, Argentina

Orca jumping out of the water during a performance at Mundo Marino
“Lightness” by Lorenzo Blangiardi on Flickr, Mundo Marino, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Kshamenk was born between 1987 and 1989 at the age of 3-5 years into an Argentinian mammal-eating population of orca. He is likely a transient orca, a specific subtype of orca, and one of the only transients in captivity. He used to share the pool with a female killer whale known as Belen, who was also from this population. Kshamenk has not seen another orca since her passing. Mundo Marino moved a female bottlenose dolphin in with him and they have lived together ever since. However, we know how mentally unhealthy this is for orca.

Habitat – the World’s Smallest Orca Tank

The orca pool areas are much smaller than the dolphin areas, as you’ll see in the Google Earth screen capture below. The larger pool on the left is for the dolphins. The large oval pool is the performance area for both dolphins and Kshanenk, and the small pool at the center is where he resides when not performing. The park’s own map below confirms this. While there are far more dolphins than the one orca, the latter requires much more space for swimming and proper physical exercise. This is even smaller than the Miami Seaquarium’s orca tank.

Mundo Marino orca pools, aerial view, image captured from Google Earth
Mundo Marino orca and dolphin pools, image captured from Google Earth, February 20, 2021. This is the clearest image available from Google.
Map of the Mundo Marino Park, showing that the orca (Kshamenk) lives in the smaller pool.
Map of the Mundo Marino Park, showing that the orca (Kshamenk) lives in the main pool, and not the dolphin pool. The latter is much larger but their map does not accurately depict this. Image downloaded from Mundo Marino’s website, February 20, 2021.

Biologists say he is very healthy and his teeth are in great condition. But his pool is small and he often floats listlessly. The dolphins have more space than Kshamenk. I usually don’t use PETA materials, but this aerial film shows the pools much better than my screen captures from Google Earth:

At one time, Mundo Marino had planned to expand his tank. “In 1995, the oceanarium directors hired a US company specialized in designing life support systems for marine animals, that had built several facilities for Sea World. A place for the new (and bigger) pool was allocated northwest of Mundo Marino. All the pre-construction stages recommended by the specialists who conducted the floor geological study were successfully developed, but the construction had to be put off due to the economic crisis in Argentina (2001).”6 Obviously, the plans were never revived.

His capture

His 1992 capture was controversial as it is not clear if the oceanarium, Mundo Marino in San Clemente del Tuyú, Argentina, rescued him or captured him from Samborombon Bay, Buenos Aires Province. As a report from the Wild Earth Foundation (WEF) explained: “The oceanarium claims to have rescued Kshamenk after he became stranded, WEF argued that he was collected opportunistically from a stranding rather than rescued and released.”7 There happens to be one small population of Patagonian transients in Argentina that intentionally strand themselves for hunting purposes, and Kshamenk may be related to that stranding orca pod.8 In any case, most captures of the late 20th century were unethical and questionable. “Although both parties can provide reasonable arguments about their claims, at this point in time it has little importance to argue about this issue.”9 Unfortunately, Kshamenk was not captured/rescued illegally since a law banning orca captures in Argentina was not passed until 1998.

Retirement?

The Wild Earth Foundation, Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, and Earth Island Institute conducted a study regarding Ksamenk’s release from captivity. “The experts have concluded that a reintroduction project is not feasible for Kshamenk, as he is dependent on humans; he could revert to previous behaviors in the wild that may put him in danger, such as begging for food or seeking human company.” The IUCN does not recommend the release of an animal outside its indigenous range or into a different genetic stock. The report concluded:

“Introduction can cause extreme, negative impacts that are difficult to foresee. Kshamenk’s home range is unknown, and no study has been conducted to determine which genetic population he belongs to. While holding Kshamenk in a sea pen would provide him with a larger and richer environment that would allow him to engage in natural activities, such retirement plan is likely to fail in the current situation. The costs for a long-term care are excessive, and, mostly important, there are no adequate locations near the oceanarium or near the area of Kshamenk’s stranding, which would ensure protection from storms and other natural threats.”10

The Whale Sanctuary Project does not address Kshamenk on their website. However, since their organization partially rose from the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, I assume that they are following the recommendations from the above-mentioned report. This is sad to me, as it seems there is no hope for this lonely orca. I’m hoping someone comes up with a plan for him in the future and I’ll be able to update this article.

Image of Kshamenk jumping out of the water at Mundo Marino
“Mundo Marino,” image of Kshamenk by -fabio- on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Captivity Continues

I’ve chosen not to write about the late Tilikum, the orca who killed his trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in 2010, only because so many others have already written about him at length. Another orca I haven’t written about is Morgan at Loro Parque. There are several organizations working to free her. I’ve included some links about both under Additional Resources below.

“[Tilikum’s] life has changed how we view SeaWorld and the marine park industry, and changed our moral calculus regarding the confinement and display of intelligent, free-ranging species.” -Tim Zimmermann, co-writer of Blackfish

Currently, there are over 60 orcas living in captivity, most of who are giving daily performances for entertainment purposes. Will Marineland Ontario give Kiska to the Whale Sanctuary Project and allow her to retire in a more natural setting with other orcas and plenty of room to swim? What will happen to Kshamenk? Will he pass away in captivity? What will happen to all of these beautiful beings?

Remember, if you don’t want to support orca captivity, don’t buy a ticket!  Thanks for reading, and please subscribe.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Canadian park sues SeaWorld to keep killer whale,” The Orlando Sentinel, October 19, 2011.

Report, “Kshamenk: The Forgotten Orca in Argentina,” Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, accessed February 23, 2021.

Article, “Marineland’s Nootka should have lived free,” Niagara This Week, January 31, 2008.

Website, Free Morgan Foundation

Article, “The Killer in the Pool,” by Tim Zimmerman, Outside Online, July 30, 2010.

Article, “Why Tilikum, SeaWorld’s Killer Orca, Was Infamous,” National Geographic, January 6, 2017.

Footnotes: